Gay love drama on big screen in ‘Love Is Strange’

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Ira Sachs has been around for a while, mak­ing movies such as the gay-themed “The Delta,” but his 2012 award-win­ning film “Keep the Lights On” thrust the gay di­rec­tor squarely onto the A-list of great film­mak­ers. Sachs has re­turned with his most main­stream film to date, “Love Is Strange,” open­ing Sept. 12 in At­lanta.

A hit at Sundance ear­lier this year, “Love Is Strange,” a Sony Pic­tures Clas­sic re­lease, looks at the top­i­cal is­sue of same-sex mar­riage. John Lith­gow and Al­fred Molina por­tray Ben and George, an el­derly, long-term cou­ple in Man­hat­tan who, as the movie opens, get mar­ried in a lav­ish cer­e­mony after almost 40 years to­gether.

What should be the hap­pi­est mo­ment of their shared life grows dark, how­ever. George is a mu­sic teacher at a Catholic school, and when word of his mar­riage finds its way to the arch­dio­cese, he is fired im­me­di­ately.

The cou­ple are forced, with­out the money George was bring­ing in, to sell their apart­ment and tem­po­rar­ily move in with fam­ily and friends. Ben, an artist, moves in with his nephew El­liot (Dar­ren Bur­rows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), a nov­el­ist, in Brook­lyn, while George takes a room with his gay cop friends Ted (Cheyenne Jack­son) and Roberto (Manny Perez) down­stairs. What seems a tem­po­rary ar­range­ment lasts longer than en­vi­sioned, as they deal with try­ing to find a new place to live.

The films of Sachs are not for ev­ery­one. Like “Keep the Lights On,” also about a gay cou­ple’s re­la­tion­ship, “Love is Strange” is an eas­ier film to re­spect than it is to warm up to. It can be cold and dis­tant and, frankly, a lit­tle arch.

Sachs’ movies lean more heav­ily on char­ac­ters than on overt plot, yet one of the dis­ap­point­ments here is that Ben and George’s sit­u­a­tion be­comes almost a sub­plot in their own movie. “Love is Strange” has a few too many char­ac­ters in its sup­port­ing cast, in­clud­ing El­liot and Kate’s young son Joey (Charlie Ta­han), who has be­gun hang­ing out with Vlad (Eric Tabach), another kid from high school who is older and po­ten­tially a bad in­flu­ence. Their scenes add lit­tle to the movie and could eas­ily have been left out. Also, “Love is Strange” ends with bizarrely lit­tle res­o­lu­tion.

Writ­ten by Sachs and Mauri­cio Zacharias, the film is filled with names, but Tomei and Jack­son have roles that are thinly writ­ten. What keeps the movie in­ter­est­ing are the two leads, whose bond is pal­pa­ble and of­ten heart-break­ing.

George and Ben feel like di­nosaurs and their plight, late in life, is sad and real. “Love is Strange” is filled with great small mo­ments—George in a house full of younger folks, feel­ing out of place, and run­ning out to find Ben; Ben, try­ing to re­lax in a bunk bed, re­al­iz­ing he is in the way of another fam­ily. Lith­gow and Molina are very com­pelling, to­gether and sep­a­rately; es­pe­cially Molina, truly one of the un­der­rated per­form­ers of his gen­er­a­tion.

While the script he’s work­ing with isn’t ground­break­ing or al­ways even smooth, Sachs, as a di­rec­tor, gives the cen­tral cou­ple dig­nity with­out sac­cha­rine and sen­ti­ment. That he doesn’t want to turn this into a tear­jerker is com­mend­able.

The film has been the cen­ter of con­tro­versy of late over the re­cent decision by the MPAA to give it an R rat­ing, de­spite its hav­ing no nu­dity, sex or vi­o­lence. This is the sec­ond gay-themed film of 2014 to re­ceive an R rat­ing, after “G.B.F.” last win­ter, and it’s clear—sadly—that the MPAA re­gards any­thing gay as be­ing for re­stricted au­di­ences only.

On the heels of a sum­mer sea­son filled with dis­ap­point­ing fare and su­per­heroes galore, “Love is Strange” comes as a re­lief: a re­fresh­ing, in­tel­li­gent film for adults. It doesn’t live up to its mas­sive hype, but thanks to Lith­gow and Molina, it’s a mov­ing, of­ten tri­umphant work.

John Lith­gow and Al­fred Molina por­tray Ben and George, an el­derly, long-term cou­ple who marry after 40 years to­gether. (Photo by Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics)

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